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The Romans did actually try to invade Arabia. However, it failed. Miserably.
Ancient Arabia was nicknamed “the wet dream of the Roman Empire” by my history teacher for a very good reason:
Not only was Arabia squished in between three major continents, making the region a strategic trading ground between different empires – it was also inhabited by very, VERY rich kingdoms ripe for plundering such as the Nabataeans (who lived in modern day Syria) and the Sabaeans (who settled in modern day Yemen).
And the best part about Arabia: It was unprotected. There was no central kingdom guarding Arabia before the rise of Islam. Instead there were many kingdoms that were divided among themselves. This made them easy targets for the Romans who only had to pick off each kingdom one at a time.
So in 1 BCE, Augustus ordered Aeilius Gallus, governor of Roman Egypt, to go down to Arabia through the Red Sea and conquer it. Not only was Aeilius given 10,000 men by Augustus, but the Nabataeans decided to cooperate with Rome in hopes of being spared from the oncoming conquest.
Everyone in Rome knew that the invasion would work. I mean, it had to, how can the might of Rome lose to a bunch of Arabians?
They were wrong. The invasion of Arabia would end up being one of the worst military disasters for the Roman Empire.
In fact, things got so bad that Augustus swept documents of the invasion under the carpet as it was that much of a failure. Which is why the invasion of Arabia isn’t that well known.
The venture to Arabia was devastating. Dozens of Roman ships were destroyed by storms and shallow rocky seas alike. Sickness and disease killed hundreds of soldiers before they had a chance to die fighting for Rome. However, worst of all was the lack of supplies the Romans had brought. No one thought that the Arabian campaign would last long, so the Romans packed minimum supplies for their supposedly short trip.
Fun fact it wasn’t a short trip. Much of the food onboard the ships was eaten by the crew leaving very few supplies for the actual invasion. Starvation and madness forced the Romans to camp out the winter so they could regroup and conscript local men.
Once the Romans had finally arrived onto Arabian soil, they were greeted by Syllaios, a nice but dodgy looking guide sent by the Nabataean King himself to aid the Romans. Little did the weary Romans know that Syllaios was actually a cover agent for the Nabataean government, who secretly wanted the Romans to fail in their conquest.
Photo: coin with face of Syllaios
Syllaios’ job was to make the Romans go on a wild goose chase around Arabia so that their supplies and men would thin out, allowing the Arabians to strike and destroy the Romans in a quick and bloody swoop.
For weeks upon weeks, Syllaios led the Romans all over Arabia, only stooping at local towns to make the Romans unsuspcious about his real agenda. However, the resilient Roman army carried on and after 6 months of wandering through endless deserts- the city of Negrana was captured.
Unknown to the Romans, Syllaios had informed the King on the whereabouts of the Romans, and suggested that it was time for an immediate strike. Hundreds of Arabian warriors attacked the Romans, completely taking them by surprise . With little to no supplies and food, the Romans barely stood a chance against the barbarians. Yet they still won with minimal casualties, proving yet again that the Roman army was the best of its time.
Seeing that everything was going to shit, Syllaios decided that it was time for him to meddle in Roman affairs yet again. With the Roman expedition pushing through the Arabian peninsula by the skin of its teeth, Syllaois advised an immediate push into the Sabaean capital of Marib which was known for its perfumes and silk.
However, Marib was just another of Syllaios traps. Waiting for the Romans were 6-metre thick walls guarded by some of Arabia’s best men.
The Romans besieged the city but only for six days. The Romans, heavily demoralised with illnesses and scarcity of supplies as well as the intense heat said “fuck it” and called off their expedition. Syllaios job was done, yet he was betrayed by a comrade and only barely escaped an army of angry Romans looking for revenge.
Within two months, the shattered remnants of the expedition returned to Alexandria. Nearly all of the troops died from starvation, diseases, heat stroke and exhaustion. Only 7 died during combat according to Aeilius Gallus.
After that disaster, the Romans never ventured into Arabia again. For failing Augustus, Aeilius Gallus was fired from being governor of Egypt and was succeeded by Gaius Petronius, a military commander and close friend of Augustus. Syllaios became known as the man who stopped the Roman invasion, and ended up becoming a popular figure in Arabia. However he died 9 BCE under suspicious circumstances. As for the 10,000 men, many perished trying to take Arabia. Those who survived were remembered as the ones “who fucked up at Marib”.
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